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Editor’s Note: A personal touch

Editor’s Note: A personal touch

Becky Schilling, Food Management Editor-in-Chief

Following up on my customer service theme from last month’s Editor’s Note, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of attention and dedication I noticed from several college operators during a recent group discussion at NACUFS. Every year, Food Management hosts a small roundtable of university operators to discuss the challenges and success stories in the industry. You can read snippets of the roundtable conversation here, with more to be posted online in the coming weeks. That discussion of problems many face at colleges was fascinating.

Last month I wrote about the unforgivable lack of service at a flashy airport eatery. At NACUFS, my faith was restored by college operators who excel at providing a level of service that borders on heroic.

To start the conversation I asked each of the operators to name some of their more difficult challenges. The operators each said some of the usual suspects—labor struggles, food price increases, meeting the demands of an increasingly picky customer base—but two of them mentioned cases that no one in the room had been challenged with before.

Every foodservice operator, from a K-12 cafeteria line employee to a fine dining server, is faced with the increasing amount of diners with food allergies. Jim Ruoff, resident district manager with Sodexo at Binghamton University, however, shared a new baffling twist.

“Students are coming with wheat allergies, nut allergies, and we need to address them now,” he said. “We had a student come to us at orientation with an airborne nut allergy. How are we going to address that? We might have to shuttle him food, but that’s what we have to do now to address these very important matters on our campus.”

You could see from the looks on the other operators’ faces that they were trying to figure out just how they would deal with this particular wrinkle on their campuses.

The other, how-would-we-approach-this moment, came from Sheryl Kidwell, residential assistant director at the University of Kansas. She was faced with questions that relate to a religion called Jainism, whose practitioners are strict vegans. It’s far more complicated because they do not eat root vegetables or, in some cases, anything that’s been in the ground. Some will eat fruit that has fallen off a tree, but there can’t be any damage to the ground or insects or anything. “We’re like, ‘Whoa,’” said Kidwell.

In both cases, neither Ruoff nor Kidwell had developed a concrete plan to address these concerns, but they were determined to find a solution. I was so impressed that both operators faced the problem head-on, essentially saying, “It’s a challenge, but we’ll work with the customer and make sure he or she has a positive, safe dining experience with us.”

The easy way out would have been to say, “Perhaps it would be best for you to find somewhere else to eat or make your own meals,” but these operators didn’t. And it’s not like they are sitting around with time on their hands—Binghamton has 17,000 students and Kansas has 27,000. The focus on providing individualized service is what makes these operations special, and keeps their customers coming back year after year. Are you as committed as they are?

If you’ve been faced with similar perplexing problems, please email me and explain how you’ve dealt with them. I’m sure there are others in the same boat.

Contact Becky Schilling at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @bschilling_FM

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